After over two years, Lake Oswego School District students and staff will no longer need to wear face coverings on campuses.
During the Monday, March 7 meeting, the Lake Oswego School Board unanimously voted to remove the district's face-covering requirement effective March 12 after a recommendation from Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Schiele, who presented findings from community feedback and district COVID-19 data.
Schiele said that part of the decision to lift the mask mandate is based on the district's vaccination rates and low numbers of positive tests. From Feb. 27 to March 5, the district identified 12 COVID-19 cases within students and staff. And Schiele said that the district's vaccination rates are the highest amongst Clackamas County with over 98% of staff vaccinated. The vaccination rates are 92% those aged 12-18 years and 71% for those between the ages of 5-11.
Another key component of the decision stemmed from community feedback. Schiele presented findings from a survey sent out Thursday, Feb. 24 asking for comments about lifting the mask mandate. Students, families and staff participated. While most said they had no concerns with lifting the requirement, some shared concerns around stigma and testing options.
In the survey, some teachers and staff commented that the district should wait until the end of the academic year to lift the mask mandate or wait for cases to drop more. Others said that if face-covering mandates were lifted it would help to have HEPA filters in workspaces and support for those who either wear a mask or choose not to.
Schiele said that over 2,000 parents and guardians responded to the survey. She said many responses inquired about other changes to schools if mask requirements are lifted and more information when there is a COVID-19 exposure.
LOSD's medical advisory committee, which is made up of medical professionals who are also parents in Lake Oswego, recommended that the district keep universal mask-wearing. The committee added that if someone chooses to wear a mask, they should ensure that it snugly fits, and families need to be diligent about monitoring symptoms in children.
Schiele said that the district will continue to follow the layered mitigation strategies that include promoting vaccination, following safety protocols and requiring isolation for unvaccinated individuals who test positive. School volunteers will also still need to be vaccinated, for the time being.
School testing will continue and N95 and KN95 masks will be provided to staff and students upon request.
The district will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metrics for determining community levels of COVID-19 and preventing an outbreak. Levels are determined by the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days.
Following the guidelines, the district will use risk categories of low, medium, and high to determine steps the community should take if COVID-19 numbers reach a certain level. Low means "stay up to date with vaccines and get tested if you show symptoms." The medium level advises people to also talk to health care providers and wear a mask if they are at high risk for severe illness.
The medium-risk provisions also apply for the high-risk category, as well as recommending face coverings indoors in public.
Schiele said that the district will have giant posters that will be displayed on school campuses to demonstrate what level the district is at and what steps students and staff should take. Green and yellow indicate "masks optional," while red means masks are recommended.
All of the posters say, "support for all choices is required."
The district supports the personal choices of families, and students are still welcome to wear face coverings no matter the risk level, according to Schiele.
"We are also going to support the people who don't want to wear masks or do want to wear a mask for whatever reason. We are going to educate our kids and our teachers to make sure that they recognize the bias someone might have … I don't want people asking someone why they are wearing a mask or not wearing one. I think we need to accept it for what it is and move forward," said Schiele.
She also said that there will be consequences for "bullying" of those who choose to continue wearing masks.
"If someone does something that is inappropriate for someone wearing a mask … there will be consequences for it. And I think it needs to start with the adults. Everyone who is at home and excited that we are putting masks (as) optional — I think that they should be talking to their own children about the feelings and the fear that come with mask wearing," Schiele said.
"We just can't tolerate (bullying). Otherwise, we will all have to go back to wearing masks again because if it gets to a point where people are making them feel like they don't belong in our system … then I think we need to reevaluate as a district."
She said that she believes that Lake Oswego can be a safe environment for people to express their personal health choice — but it starts with conversations.
"This is exceptionally bittersweet and brings with it vomit-raising discomfort. And not because I'm not excited to be moving to a different phase with this pandemic — that is exciting on all fronts. But I would be a fool as a public health professional to not say that this disease still exists and has killed more people than any of our recent wars," said School Board Chair Kirsten Aird. "So, I invite all the care and compassion that got us to this point … use all that same excitement and commitment for someone other than you and your family into what this next phase looks like. Keep getting vaccinated and boosted, and everything else do with kindness and care."
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